Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tusheti - a beautiful place you've never heard of

We recently returned from a hiking trip to Georgia (the country, not the state). We had gone expecting great mountain hikes; we found the closest thing I've yet seen to Shangri La. This post, quite unlike the rest of the blog around it, tells about the remote and fascinating Tusheti area in north east Georgia, and why you want to go there.
Tusheti is the green corner north-north-east of Tbilisi.

To reach Tusheti you travel to Tbilisi, the center of which is a jumble of churches, castles, ultra-modern structures, and communist era monstrosities. The overall feeling is post-communist, even though it's been 25 years since Georgia achieved independence from the Soviet Union. I didn't see many traffic lights, nor drivers who seemed to miss them, but there was WiFi.

The next morning it was off to the mountains. For about two hours we traveled on reasonably paved roads through rural areas that looked even more post-communist than Tbilisi. Then the road petered out, and we were on gravel. Then the gravel became narrow, and then there was a rapid river beneath us, and then even the river disappeared, to be replaced by treetops in the gorge below us. Quite a way below us. It dawned on us there was a reason our guide had mentioned a full day travel – not that it was so far but that the road was for inching along. Many hours of inching along.

Mostly without a security railing.

 Eventually we reached the pass at the top of the road.

 And then we went down the other side, then up again. 72 km of unpaved mountain road, alongside a chasm almost the whole time, and no sign of human settlement anywhere. Until eventually we arrived in Tusheti.

So the first thing you need to know about Tusheti is that it's beautiful, but the second is that there's only one single road into it (and back out), and it's not one you want to drive. The locals have been going up and down that pass for centuries, and they start driving it after a childhood of riding it, sometimes in big six-wheeled trucks. They know what they're doing and they don't fall off the cliff. Others sometimes do. So have a local take you up, and don't even think of doing it yourself.

Beauty is actually not the only reason to be up there, but it is a compelling one.

What makes Tusheti different from other beautiful mountain ranges are its people. The Tushetis. There are a few thousand of them, and they've been there for at least 1,600 years. They've got their own dialect. They're spread over the slopes of four valleys, surrounded by 5,000 meter mountains. The winters are ferocious, so they spend them in the lowlands, migrating up for the warm half of the year with their cattle, horses, and many sheep. They also raise crops, though with the advent of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks they've been focusing more on livestock and cheese-making, importing the rest from below. 

The rest of Georgia has been changing political overlords incessantly for as long back as memory goes; Tusheti, secure behind that rampart of mountains, only twice, once by Tamarlane. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, present everywhere else in the country, had a hard time making it up the pass, and to a surprising degree never fully made it: the Tushetis till this very day, are polytheistic. They're Orthodox and also pagans, simultaneously. There are more than 50 small villages and hamlets in Tusheti; only three have churches, and even they are built alongside the sacrificial altar that most of the villages have. Both are active.

Only in one village - Dartlo - was the church constructed on the site of the altar, rather than alongside it. A few decades later there was an earthquake and the church was destroyed. This is a fact, make of it what you will.

The gods, by the way, are apparently two sets of dieties, one benign and the other malicious, and the Tushetis appeal to the benign ones for protection.

Today's Tushetis all come together for their annual holiday in August, where they offer sacrifices and celebrate, then they break up into subgroups by valley, and continue with local sacrifices and celebrations. Even those who no longer make their living from the land and don't spend the whole summer in the mountains, come up for the month of celebrations. Thus, the slight ghost town sensation visitors can have in some of these villages must be greatly reduced in August.

Not fully however. If a family ever runs out of male descendants, the family home will be abandoned; it is now accursed, not to be used ever again. Each village has a few "dead' homes, slowly disintegrating. Another ancient tradition is that woman may not approach the altars, nor the stills where ritual beer is prepared. If you wish to respect the locals, when entering a new village you'll ask where not to go; the locals will appreciate your sign of respect.

On the way up that pass I'd noticed a few rusty pylons.

What are those about, I asked our guide, as we walked between villages unadorned by any electric poles? The Soviets, she said. The Soviets were against the Tusheti way of life. So they forbade families to come up each summer, but insisted the menfolk do; each one was assigned a production quota of livestock or cheese. This was so important that even during WW2, when the Soviet Union was in a state of total war, the Tusheti men were left alone to fill their quotas. They were administered from Omalo, the "big city" (population 812, if you ask me), near the entrance from the road over the pass. The administrators got electricity. And then, I asked? As soon as the Soviets left, she said, some locals stole the lines and sold the metal. And yes, the other locals saw this happening, and no, no one dared stop them in the lawlessness of the time.

So the Soviets had threatened the very existence of the Tusheti way of life, but they'd left behind a (somewhat) improved road and the memory of electricity. A few years ago a Czech NGO began installing a limited number of solar panels in some of the villages, so that the guesthouses offer hot water showers early in the evening, and you can recharge your cellphone batteries – though in many cases you won't be able to make calls with them. The solar panels are 21st century progress over the long-gone electric cables of the 20th century; cellphone connectivity is a 21st century scourge, thankfully limited up in the mountains.

While the Soviet Union is gone, Russia is very close. When hiking along the Alazani River, which we did for parts of three days, it's right there, at the top of the snowy mountain ridge. To be precise, Chechnya is to the north and Dagestan to the east. During the first round of the Russian-Chechnyan war in the 1990s, Tusheti served as the back base for the Chechnyan  rebels. (There's no road across the steep ridge, but if you're in good physical shape and don't suffer from altitude sickness you can climb across it). Nowadays, so we were told, the Russians are at the top of the ridge and will shoot if anyone comes too close. Elsewhere along the border, where there's no natural line such as the top of a ridge, Russia is apparently constantly moving the border deeper into Georgian territory – not that this is anything that gets reported in the Western media.

One morning we encountered a horseman trotting along who, unlike all the other locals I met, refused my request to take his picture. Our guide explained that he's Chechen, not Tusheti; a religious Muslim. Apparently there's a handful them who have remained permanently on the gentler side of the mountain ridge.

Upon probing a bit deeper, I got the impression that spending a thousand years over the hill from the Chechans and other rough Caucasus tribes has involved a degree of friction. Cattle rustling, say, and perhaps the random clash. This would explain the impressive defense towers each and every hamlet offers. They wouldn't be much use against a Tamerlane intent on destruction, nor against Soviets intent on re-inventing society, but for offering sanctuary until the cattle rustler moved on, they were fine. For tourists with cameras they're great.

Don't let the towers fool you, however. These are not the castles of the aristocrats, built by the serfs. Throughout its many centuries, even as the Europeans to the west had rule by the few over the many, the Tushetis lived in a mostly egalitarian society. Success at farming was important, but each tribe or village demanded of each family that they work hard enough to succeed, with no allowances for slackers. Some wise old men were consulted for being wise, and in the village of Diklo we saw the remains of an ancient court of peers which resolved local disagreements. No one was truly rich, so no-one was poor, either. Sounds as close to being free as most of history had to offer, and you had to come all the way to this remote corner of the Caucasus to find it.

One of the major products of the area is Tusheti cheese, famous, apparently, throughout the country and beyond. One day we asked to see the process close up. Of course, said the cheese-maker; by all means.

On Shabbat we didn't do any hiking; yet simply sitting in the small village of Girevi was instructive: the villagers were busy. Laundry is done by hand. Wood is chopped by hand. Cows are milked by hand. Goats are slaughtered on the track next to the hut, then quartered and processed, all by hand. Three men down the lane spent the whole day putting a new roof above a veranda, apparently preparing a new guest house. The horses need tending.

The houses the Tushetis live in are rough hewn (a stronger word than 'rustic'). Sometimes there's a solar panel; every now and then we saw satellite TV receptors, almost always disconnected. There are no paved roads. I assume they've got running water since that's easy to have, simply by running a pipe from a nearby stream. They often own a battered second-hand van or pickup truck, but quite a few travel by horse, often bareback. Riding at night, our guide assured us, was never dangerous, unless one be lulled by a local evil spirit to leave the track; it wasn't entirely clear how serious she was.

They are hospitable. One day the most elder member of our party was tired, and the first vehicle that passed immediately took him and his daughter a few miles down the track to the next village. When we arrived it turned out that two young mothers with small children, whose husbands were afield, had taken them into their living room/dining room/kitchen; when we came by they welcomed us in too, so that we could have our lunch in the shade (it was a hot day). Who ever heard of such behavior in our modern world?

The most striking thing about their life style, so far as I could see, was the joy with which they gather together each evening and sit around talking and laughing. It's a hard life, physically, and a meager one financially; yet again and again, in different villages, I was impressed how they'd sit and laugh.

They're probably at a historic crossroads. In past centuries when they felt a mountainside was overgrazed they'd dedicate it to the local spirit of the mountain, so it became forbidden for grazing, and Nature would retrieve it. Hunters asked for the blessing of the Goddess of Hunting, but were careful not to anger her by harming young females and their offspring, thus ensuring sustainability. Hunting is no longer essential, and even grazing is slowly declining; more Tushetis come up for the month of August than for the entire season. What is rising, slowly and tentatively, is tourism. Being the sparely inhabited land it is, tourists inevitably have an impact, and leave a footprint. In the most remote villages we reached, at least one or two families had put up a primitive sign declaring their guest house or restaurant (fare: meat, cheese, simple vegetables, local bread, Georgian beer brought up from the lowlands in large jars, and Chacha, the national (very) alcoholic liquor. This young man and his wife and infant live in a hut and graze their flock; and they've put up a sign declaring it to be a café.

Given the remoteness, that challenging road, the rusticity and the appeal of such a land only to tourists who're into roughing it in magnificent places, the locals are unlikely to be overrun anytime soon by air-conditioned busses and tourists who insist on Starbucks. Yet change is afoot, and a degree of commercialism may be inevitable. So don't wait too long.

Logistics: Our guide, Tiko Ididze, is the best you could wish for. Her English (and apparently her Spanish) is flawless, her guiding ability is high, she's knowledgeable, she's young enough to be quite free of the mannerisms communism inculcated in its citizens. Living in Tbilisi she's just what you'd expect a young Western urban professional to be… except that she's Tusheti herself. Which means she knows all of them either personally or to the second degree, knows all of their history and is generally a trove of information. I don't generally do advertising on this blog, but if this post has done anything to convince you, talk to Tiko. Tinikoididze at Gmail.

Finally, a word about our group: we were organized by Yedidya and Susan of Koshertreks. If you're into hardworking treks in fantastic remote places, and you care deeply or at least don't mind kosher food while being there, Koshertreks is an outfit you should know about.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Absolutely fantastic! Thanks for the wonderful memories!